The Perfect Establishing Shot: A Guide for Film and Video [2024]

establishing shot

Key Takeaways: What is an Establishing Shot?

What It Is: An establishing shot in a movie is the first shot that sets up a scene. It shows the audience where and sometimes when the action is happening.

Where to Find One: You’ll usually see an establishing shot right at the beginning of a new scene or sequence. There are often many establishing shots in a single movie or TV show!

Types: There are different types of establishing shots – such as wide shots showing a whole city or landscape, aerial shots from high above (often taken using drones these days), or close-up shots of a building or room where the story takes place.

Have you heard the term “establishing shot”, but you’re not quite sure what it means? Or maybe you’re an aspiring filmmaker eager to learn everything about making a movie… either way, it’s an important film term to know!

These wide-shot views of a particular location or close-up shots of a person or object not only set the context and setting for a scene but also immerse the audience in the world of a story.

If you’re like me, then you were a fan of establishing shots long before you even knew what they were. Don’t believe me?

Think of a Ridley Scott sci-fi classic with futuristic skylines, or a John Ford western with rugged vistas that seem to go on forever. These are the kind of shots that pull you into the story world before you’ve even met the main characters!

In this article, we’ll explore the art of visual storytelling through establishing shots and touch on the various types of shots you can use. We will also examine a few practical examples from iconic films.

Let’s talk more about how to create visually stunning establishing shots!

What is an Establishing Shot?

graphic explaining what an establishing shot is in a film or video

First, let’s look at the establishing shot definition.

The establishing shot, which can be either a wide-angle view of the story’s location or a close-up of a particular object or detail, offers context, sets the film’s tone, and immerses the audience in the world of the movie.

Establishing shots serve as a way to begin a story visually. They give the audience a clear picture of the setting, including where and when the scene takes place. It’s all about setting the stage for the film!

Importance of the Establishing Shot

A wide establishing shot of a city skyline

The establishing shot plays a vital role in giving context, setting the tone, and immersing the audience in the story. Shooting and editing a well-executed establishing shot can evoke emotions, build suspense, and capture the viewer’s imagination.

For example, consider the opening shot of the city skyline in Blade Runner or the breathtaking aerial view of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter film franchise.

These establishing shots not only introduce the audience to the world of the story but also create an unforgettable visual experience (see below!).

Types of Great Establishing Shots

A wide establishing shot of a particular building

A good establishing shot can take various forms, such as:

  • Wide shots that showcase the entire scene
  • Aerial shots that provide a bird’s-eye view
  • Close-up shots that focus on specific details

These different kinds of shots are great for giving the audience a complete grasp of the location. By showcasing different perspectives, viewers get a thorough understanding of the setting.

Let’s look into some of the many standard shot sizes you can use for dramatic effect in your next establishing scene.

Wide Shots

Wide shots are among the most common establishing shots. They provide an expansive view of the environment.

For instance, the opening shot of the New York City skyline in Captain America: The First Avenger gives the audience a clear indication that the timeframe is not present day. In this case, a wide shot was used to convey the setting and time period effectively.

To draw attention to a specific building in an establishing shot, filmmakers have a range of filming techniques at their disposal. They can tilt the camera up or down, pan across the scene, or zoom in. Wide shots are particularly effective for giving viewers a sense of the physical space of the scene.

Aerial Shots

Aerial shots provide a unique perspective and are often used in establishing shots to showcase the scale of a scene. They might also be used to highlight the relationship between different elements in the shot.

Aerial shots are a filmmaker’s go-to for capturing great locations. These shots can be incredibly effective by leveraging elements like composition, framing, lighting, color, and camera movement. They add depth and beauty to any scene, making them a popular choice among filmmakers.

A great example is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which opens on a lone family car driving through vast mountain ranges, giving a taste of the isolation the family will experience over the course of the story.

Close-Up Shots

Close-up shots, while not as common in establishing shots, can still be effectively used to:

  • Emphasize the emotions and reactions of a character.
  • Draw attention to an object or detail.
  • Create a feeling of familiarity between the viewer and the subject.

You can use various close-up shots, like extreme close-up or medium close-up, to create the desired effect. These shots can add a friendly and practical touch to your videos, allowing you to capture the details you want.

For example, Shaun of the Dead’s first shot is a close-up of Simon Pegg’s Shaun sitting in a pub, obliviously drinking a pint and smoking while his girlfriend tries to connect for the umpteenth time. It immediately establishes that he’s in a failing relationship thanks to his inattention and unwillingness to change.

How to Film an Establishing Shot

Creating a powerful establishing shot requires careful planning before you film, focusing on the small details when you’re shooting, and smart choices when you’re editing. These steps will ensure your shot is memorable.

The goal is to make the audience feel like they’re stepping into the world you’ve created and to form a connection with the characters from the get-go. Use these shots to enrich your film and captivate your viewers!


The planning process during pre-production is key for constructing the ideal establishing shot. This includes activities such as:

  • Scriptwriting
  • Scouting locations
  • Casting actors
  • Preparing a shooting schedule

Choosing just the right kind of establishing shot is very important—whether it’s a big view or a close-up.

You’ll need to find an interesting place to shoot, set up your camera just right, and make sure the lighting makes the scene look good. Keep the shot simple and clear, and try different camera moves to make it interesting.

There are countless fantastic establishing shot examples to draw from – all it takes is a little (or a lot!) of movie watching. By examining what the greats did and how they did it, you can learn to use establishing shots effectively in telling your stories and setting up each scene.


In the production phase, capturing the establishing shot is all about precision and execution.

You’re tasked with making the vision you’ve planned come to life. This involves shooting the type of shot you’ve selected—whether it’s a wide-angle of a bustling cityscape or a focused detail of a key object that’s central to your story.

At the location you’ve chosen, set up your camera to capture the breadth or intimacy of the scene, and adjust your lights to highlight or soften the mood as necessary.

You’ll want to monitor the sound quality, ensure the actors or elements are in place, and check for any visual distractions that might take away from the establishing shot’s purpose. The goal is to create an establishing shot that not only looks good but also seamlessly introduces your audience to the setting and atmosphere of your film.


an establishing shot of a city skyline during post-production process.

After filming, editing and post-production is where you make your establishing shot look its best. You’ll want to work on:

It’s important to look at every little bit to make sure it all tells the story right, feels just how you want, and looks amazing. Adding the perfect music and sound effects can make a big difference. Watch out for mistakes like using too many effects or making the picture hard to see.

Remember, it’s all about getting the details for your establishing shot just right!

The Art of Visual Storytelling

infographic defining visual storytelling

Visual storytelling is crafting a story using images and sounds.

Directors like Wes Anderson are masters at choosing the right shots to match the feeling of their films. By mixing various shots, angles, colors, music, and sounds, you will create stories that not only look amazing but also make your viewers feel a deep connection with what’s on the screen!

Iconic Establishing Shots

A wide establishing shot of a city skyline with a low angle shot of a particular building

Discover the world of iconic establishing shots in cinema!

From classic films to modern masterpieces, each establishing shot packs a powerful punch. Unforgettable visuals and evoked emotions demonstrate the significance of the master shot in every scene. Let’s take a closer look!

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

This British epic historical drama depicts the life of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), a British Army officer who aided Arab tribes during World War I to secure independence from the Ottoman Empire. The movie chronicles Lawrence’s encounters in the Arabian Peninsula during World War I, particularly his assaults on Aqaba and Damascus and his participation in the Arab National Council.

By using the Super Panavision 70 widescreen process, director David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young utilized a wide aspect ratio and deep focus for each frame of film, where each establishing shot serves to showcase the majesty, heat, and isolation of the endless desert landscapes.

As a result, Lawrence of Arabia has been widely acclaimed for its cinematography, direction, and performances, with a Best Picture Oscar and Best Director, Cinematography, Production Design, and Editing, among many other accolades.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott, features an iconic establishing shot that showcases a dystopian futuristic cityscape with a gradual zoom-out at eye level. The techniques used to create this shot included a wide-angle lens, low angle, and long zoom-out.

This aerial master shot helps establish the tone for the film while also immediately providing information on the genre, time period, location, and overall feel. It’s no surprise that it has become renowned as a science fiction classic to this day.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

In Star Wars: A New Hope, the iconic establishing shot of a massive Star Destroyer chasing the tiny Rebel ship is of great importance as it:

  • Establishes the setting of alien worlds and an immediate tone as a space opera.
  • Provides the audience with an exciting and action-filled introduction to the world of the Star Wars universe.
  • Imparts a sense of epic scale through its composition and framing.
  • Emphasizes the power and terror of the Empire.

This particular opening scene had a profound effect on viewers of the day – and continues to be effective today – evoking a sense of awe and wonder while immediately setting up the stakes of the scene that follows, as well as the movie in general.

Techniques for Establishing Shots

high angle shot of a building in a city skyline establishing shot

Effective establishing shots use composition, framing, lighting, color, and camera movement to create a visually engaging and informative introduction to a scene.

Let’s take a closer look at these techniques and how they can be used to improve your creative process and create stunning establishing shots.

Composition and Framing

Film composition is a technique to construct an image or scene that strategically places elements within a camera frame. The use of color and the application of light and shadow are examples. In other words, what we see is just as important as what we don’t.

Different types of establishing scenes, such as wide shots, aerial shots, and close-up shots, can be employed to create intriguing composition and framing and establish time, location, and other key information.

Lighting and Color

Lighting and color play a critical role in establishing shots as they contribute to the atmosphere and tone of the scene and focus the viewer’s attention on certain elements. The fundamentals of lighting and color encompass the various types of lighting, including natural, artificial, and mixed.

The basics of color theory include the color wheel and various types of color schemes and how they can be manipulated to best evoke the right emotions from your audience based on your chosen genre, visual style, and overall narrative.

By understanding the significance of lighting and color and using them skillfully, you can film visually breathtaking establishing shots. Let’s dive in!

Camera Movement and Angles

close up of a building in a city skyline establishing shot.

Camera movement and angles are pivotal in establishing shots as they can create a sense of depth while emphasizing a particular subject or desired atmosphere.

Panning, tracking, dollying, and zooming are examples of camera movement, while low-angle and high-angle shots are examples of camera angles.

Innovations and Trends

Innovations and trends in establishing shots include the use of drone shots to create unique perspectives. It’s a more economical alternative to the classic helicopter and high-angle crane shots of the past, which were cost-prohibitive to independent filmmakers.

Another cost-effective option is using stock footage. Many filmmakers supplement their income by providing stock footage companies with a wide range of video footage that can serve as establishing shots. By adjusting these video clips to match your film’s color palette, lighting, and overall look and feel, you can seamlessly incorporate them into your project. This practical approach allows you to enhance your film while staying within budget.

The incorporation of virtual reality and CGI can also lend a hand to visually stunning experiences. These advancements in technology offer filmmakers new creative opportunities and the ability to capture breathtaking establishing shots that captivate audiences and elevate the visual storytelling experience.

The use of drones and computer-generated visual effects allows filmmakers to capture shots that were historically cost-prohibitive or even not possible while creating a new experience for the audience.

Drone Shots

Drone shots have gained popularity in recent years due to their ability to provide unique perspectives. Wide shots, aerial shots, and close-up shots can all be captured using drone technology.

The same film techniques previously discussed can be used to create effective drone shots, making them a popular choice for filmmakers wanting to capture great establishing shots at a lower cost.

Virtual Reality and CGI

A wide establishing shot of a city skyline with an aerial shot of two criminals.

Virtual Reality (VR) and Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) are technologies utilized to generate immersive, interactive, and lifelike 3D environments. These technologies offer filmmakers the following:

  • Increased creative flexibility.
  • The ability to create realistic and immersive environments.
  • The ability to achieve effects that would be difficult or impossible with conventional camera equipment.

As the technology advances and becomes more accessible, it is anticipated that Virtual Reality and CGI will gain greater adoption in the film and video industry, providing filmmakers with more creative latitude and cost-effective visuals.

Common Mistakes

When capturing establishing shots, it’s crucial to steer clear of common mistakes that may diminish the impact of the shot. These mistakes include excessive repetition, which can bore the audience, and a lack of clarity or focus, potentially confusing viewers’ grasp of the story.

Let’s explore these common mistakes in more detail and discuss strategies for avoiding them.

Overuse or Redundancy

classic shot of a building in a wide establishing shot of a city skyline

Overuse or redundancy occurs when a filmmaker employs the same shot or technique too frequently, creating a sense of repetition and dreariness.

To maintain audience engagement and interest, it’s a good idea to incorporate a variety of:

  • Shots
  • Camera angles
  • Shot types
  • Music
  • Sound effects

Lack of Clarity or Focus

A lack of clarity or focus with establishing shots can result in confusion among the audience and a disconnect between the audience and the story narrative. This can occur when the establishing shot is too wide or too close, making it hard for viewers to understand the scene’s context.

For example, if your scene is set in the living room of a small house, but the establishing shot is of a large cityscape rather than the home’s exterior, there will be a disconnect between the two. The shot will fail to establish the scene that follows.

To ensure clarity and focus, you should think about composition, lighting, and camera angles that will provide the audience with an understanding of the coming scene or story.

Final Thoughts

Establishing shots are a crucial element of the visual storytelling experience as they provide context for the following scenes while setting the tone for the story.

To become skilled at composition and framing, lighting and color, and camera movement and angles, you’ll need to study and understand the various types of establishing shots. That way, you’ll be able to avoid common mistakes that can negatively impact the overall film experience.

When it comes to the perfect establishing shot, it’s not just about capturing an image. It’s about creating a visually engaging introduction to a scene. This powerful technique effectively visualizes a story and evokes emotion in your audience. So, remember to craft your shots with care!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between an establishing shot and a wide shot?

A wide shot refers to the distance between the camera and the subject, while an establishing shot is a technique used at the start of a film or scene to show where and when the action occurs.

How many seconds is an establishing shot?

An establishing shot usually lasts around five seconds, setting the stage for the action to come. This type of shot typically doesn’t need to be longer than a few seconds.

What is the primary purpose of an establishing shot?

An establishing shot is like the opening picture in a movie that shows you where the story is happening. It helps you understand what’s going on, who’s who, and what the feeling of the scene is. It’s the way a movie says, “Here’s where our story takes place.”

What are some common mistakes to avoid when creating establishing shots?

Be careful not to repeat the same shots, and ensure the shot is clear and focused.

How can drone technology be used to create unique establishing shots?

Drones help movie makers take amazing wide or high-up shots from the sky. They can also zoom in close from way up high. This can make movies look great without spending a lot of money.

Interested in filmmaking? Check out these other helpful articles!

How to Make An Independent Film: A Guide for Filmmakers

9 Top Indie Filmmaking Tips [From a Film Festival Director]

How to Upscale Video [Higher Resolution & Quality]

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